Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Soup and Salad: Jane Smiley on Why Fiction Matters, Staging Karl Ove Knausgaard, Staging The Other Woman, September Covers, Awards Season is Upon Us, Lauren Groff Finds the Joy, Joshua Mohr and His Three Strokes

On today’s menu:

1.  It’s been nearly a year since I served some Soup and Salad here at the blog, but I think it’s about time I resurrected this news-bite feature. To welcome its return, I thought I’d share some recent thoughts on the power and purpose of novels, brought to you by the never-uninteresting Jane Smiley, who writes at The Center for Fiction’s website,
The novel is not like any other form of art. It takes up a subject, makes use of a voice and exposes us to that subject and that voice for hours on end. If we want to, we can immerse ourselves in a subject and/or a voice endlessly, by reading one book over and over, by reading series of books, by reading all the books of a single author, by reading many books about a single subject. We can zip through Agatha Christie or we can toil through Ulysses, we can read through “100 Best” lists or rummage in the attic, keep up with bestsellers and Goodreads favorites. What we seek, I think, is the drip drip drip of another consciousness into our own, a set of images we could not imagine without those words, a gallery of worlds we may never have actually seen, but feel we have seen because an author has portrayed them.

2.  “My first thought was that it’s impossible. There’s no way. The novel, and the amount of thoughts and reflections in it, was too huge. My second thought was, I’d like to give it a try.” Bringing Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six-volume, 3,600-word My Struggle to the stage.

3.  Speaking of theater, if you’re connected with the local arts group in your community, you might be interested in a nationwide staging of a work featuring women’s voices, organized by Victoria Zackheim, author of Faith: Essays from Believers, Agnostics, and Atheists. She recently emailed me with this description of the stage project:
In 2007, my book The Other Woman: Twenty-one Wives, Lovers, and Others Talk Openly About Sex, Deception, Love, and Betrayal was launched on the Today show. This collection of non-fiction/personal essays immediately became a Canadian national bestseller, was featured in People magazine and generated dozens of radio and television appearances around the country. Shortly before the launch, I selected five essays and wove them into The Other Woman, a dramatic, edgy, and sometimes humorous one-act play of ninety minutes. The night before the book’s national launch, the adaptation had a reading at the Players Club in Manhattan. Onstage were Kathleen Chalfant, Ellen McLaughlin, Penny Fuller, and Winslow Corbett, and author Connie May Fowler. The event was repeated in San Francisco, with equal audience enthusiasm. With the play now polished and bursting with energy, co-producer Cynthia Comsky and I have designed One Night/One Play, a reading to be presented in multiple theaters across the United States on Monday, November 9, 2015. Participating U.S. theaters will be part of a national media campaign directed toward the uniqueness of this one-night event. It is our hope that we’ll have experimental as well as traditional theaters, houses reflecting the wonderfully dissimilar communities that represent diversity in the US. In this reading, actors sit five abreast, the only props being five chairs and five music stands (on which scripts will rest). Stage directions and sound systems are at the discretion of the director. Actors are on script, so one rehearsal is sufficient. All participating theaters will receive a packet (electronic) of marketing and PR materials to support local promotions, including the bios and head shots of the five contributing authors. Our goal is to connect with theaters that engage with their communities. We will work toward multi-media coverage nationwide. If you join us for this exciting one-night project, we ask that you not alter the script and that you cast experienced actors. In terms of a financial arrangement, there is none. You will pay us nothing, nor do we pay you. Any proceeds you collect through ticket sales and/or donations remain with you. If you choose to present this reading as a fundraiser, we suggest a percentage be donated to a local women's shelter.
If you’re interested, email Victoria ASAP at

4.  I can always depend on The Casual Optimist to tickle my eyes with book cover designs. Here are some of my favorites from its recent gallery of September releases, including some non-U.S. covers I prefer...

 Design by Matt Roeser; illustration by Kikuo Johnson

Design by Justine Anweiler; photography by Jonathan Simpson 

Design by Erin Fitzsimmons
...and though it’s not included in the C.O. roundup, a visit to Erin Fitzsimmons’ website led me to this terrific cover for Mindy McGinnis’ new novel A Madness So Discreet:

5.  It’s awards season, and you know what that means: late-night reading sessions, tossing back cup after cup of hot coffee, rapidly flipping pages and stuffing sentences into your head as you race to keep up with all these highly-praised books. Or maybe that’s just me. At any rate, at least two lists, the Kirkus Prize finalists and the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 list, are already populated with residents of my ever-towering To-Be-Read pile (aka Mount NeveRest). I’ll see you on the other side of the coffee, my friends.

6.  One of those honorees, Lauren Groff (Fates and Furies), was recently interviewed at The Millions. Here’s a snippet from that conversation with Elizabeth Word Gutting:
I write almost everything by hand. It works out well for me because I can’t read my own handwriting, and so I don’t go back to read the drafts I’ve just written. I do a draft, and by the time I’ve finished it, I understand the foundational problems that are ruining the book. And then I just start over again. That way I’m building my idea of the world of the story, I’m building the characters. The things that I remember when I’m finished with one draft are the living details, and the living details are the ones that are meant to be in the story, that mean something. My drafting system is insane, and it’s very wasteful, and I’m frustrated for years and years at a time, but it ends up working out for me, because otherwise I would end up polishing foundationally problematic work. My impulse always is to spend all my time playing with words—that’s the most joyous part for me.

7.  I’ll leave you with five minutes of heartbreak. I don’t usually stomp my feet and insist you read something, but when I do, you can bet it’s important. So I’m stomping and insisting as I point you to this essay by Joshua Mohr (All This Life) about his three strokes:
     I roll over onto my stomach, a gesture that Ava interprets as an invitation to play and she’s straddling my back and yelling, “Hop on pop! Hop on pop!” which makes this moment of emergency seem ludicrous but also sort of perfect, the way a child can’t comprehend how grave and mortal things are.
     She keeps thumping her butt on my back and chanting, “Hop on pop!” and I crane my head around to see her as she bounces on me, and I say to Ava, “I don’t want to die.”
     It’s silly to say that to an 18-month-old, but I can’t stop myself, and maybe, there’s no better person to tell because she’s the reason I need to live.
Go here. Read it and weep.

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